At the beginning of August, at the height of Israel’s brutal military assault on Lebanon, Tony Blair gave a widely reported speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council where he warned of “an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East”.
What was less well reported was the qualification Blair gave to this “extremism”. It was “not any religious extremism, but a specifically Muslim version,” he said, and this “Islamist extremism” was “based on a presumed sense of grievance” among Muslims.
Around the same time, George Bush started making similar comments, talking of “war with Islamic fascists”.
The notion that there is anything “fascist” about Islamic resistance movements in the Middle East does not stand up to scrutiny, as even the US foreign policy establishment admits.
“There is no sense in which jihadists embrace fascist ideology as it was developed by Mussolini or anyone else who was associated with the term,” says Daniel Benjamin from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
These claims about “extremism” and “Islamofascism” are the latest version of right wing arguments that have deep historical roots.
They are a pointed ideological weapon of the ruling class - a weapon that the anti-war movement needs to confront.
By justifying imperial wars in terms of broad and abstract “values”, Bush and Blair can effectively license any sort of military attack anywhere in the world.
They no longer need to justify their actions in terms of the threat of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.
Open and closed
In Blair’s Los Angeles speech, he spoke about how in politics “the increasing divide today is between open and closed” - and “open” in this context means “free trade” and “managed immigration”.
The notion that the fundamental political distinction is between “open” and “closed” societies was first championed by Karl Popper.
He was an Austrian philosopher whose political theories rose to prominence at the end of the Second World War and became deeply influential in right wing circles during the Cold War.
Popper came from a Jewish background and had to flee his native Austria when the Nazis came to power. He opposed fascism - but he was also a fanatical anti-Marxist. Popper argued that communism and fascism, far from being opposites, were in fact twins.
Both were examples of “closed” societies marked by “totalitarian” political ideologies.
Liberal democracies, on the other hand, were “open” and thus equally opposed to both extremes, left and right.
These ideas, and related theories of “totalitarianism”, were eagerly championed by ruling classes across the US and Western Europe.
They provided the perfect cover for imperialist meddling abroad and political repression at home. Liberation movements in the colonies and trade unionists in the West could all be labelled as “communist”, and therefore as “enemies of freedom”.
The other crucial feature of Popper’s “totalitarianism” theory was that it deliberately blurred the distinction between left and right - another favourite theme of Blair.
This allowed Western ruling classes to put a “left wing” gloss on their ideology when it was convenient. Communism was the same as fascism, the left opposed fascism, therefore the left should side with the US against Russia - or so the logic went.
These arguments did in fact attract certain sections of the far left. Trotskyist activists such as Max Shachtman in the US, reeling from the murderous repression meted out by Stalin’s agents against revolutionaries, started to see Western capitalism as relatively progressive.
Shachtman’s followers supported the US during the Vietnam war and some, such as Irving Kristol, became full-blown neoconservatives.
In contrast other currents of revolutionary socialism, such as those associated with this publication, rejected the idea of choosing between the US and Russia.
Tony Cliff, founder of the Socialist Workers Party, argued that whatever the superficial rhetorical differences between the two superpowers, in practice they both functioned as imperialist and capitalist states - and that both should be opposed.
But however useful the theory of “totalitarianism” was for the right during the Cold War, it suffered from major flaws.
It could not explain why Western ruling elites had at first welcomed Hitler and Mussolini, seeing them as a bulwark against working class agitation.
It was only when Hitler’s military ambitions threatened their own imperial interests that the Western “democratic” elites discovered their opposition to fascism.
Moreover, the notion that Communism and fascism were simply two variants of the same “totalitarian” species, was of no value in understanding how such societies actually worked.
In truth the Soviet Union was nowhere near as powerful as it was painted to be by Cold War ideologues. In the late 1980s the Eastern European regimes suddenly collapsed. All of a sudden the ideology of “totalitarianism” was obsolete as a means of justifying Western imperialism.
So throughout the 1990s, there was a concerted effort by right wingers to concoct a new enemy that could take the place of Communism in a resurrected version of “totalitarian” theory.
And the ruling class needed such an enemy - its imperialism certainly did not stop in the 1990s, so the need for an ideology to justify that imperialism persisted.
A new ‘great enemy’ created
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent establishment of an Islamic regime in Iran proved very useful in providing a new enemy for imperialist ideology. Over the next two decades many people in the Middle East turned to Islamist movements against imperialism.
These developments led Samuel Huntingdon, a right wing US political theorist, to propose that the new order following the Cold War was characterised by a “clash of civilisations” that pitted Western Christendom against a variety of enemy civilisations - Islam chief among them.
This increasing demonisation of Islam, and casting of Islamism as the new totalitarianism, received a huge boost with the launch of the “war on terror”. Concepts such as “Islamofascism”, once confined to cranks on the right, suddenly became respectable establishment opinion.
And just as in the Cold War, a section of the left has played along with this.
But while “Islamofascism” might be the buzzword of the moment, the hardcore of the ruling class right has never forgotten who their real enemy is. Daniel Pipes, an influential neoconservative ideologue and rabid anti-Muslim, made a revealing comment in the wake of Bush’s mutterings about “Islamic fascism”.
“I applaud the increasing willingness to focus on some form of Islam as the enemy but find the word ‘fascist’ misleading,” he wrote. “Few historic or philosophic connections exist between fascism and radical Islam... Radical Islam has many more ties, both historic and philosophic, to Marxism-Leninism... During the Cold War, Islamists preferred the Soviet Union to the US. Today, they have more and deeper connections to the hard left than to the hard right.”
And a close reading of Tony Blair’s speeches suggests that he agrees. In August last year he declared that radical Islam “has got some of the same characteristics as revolutionary communism”. It seems his reheated Cold War rhetoric has come full circle, focusing on the threat of global human liberation, led by workers and based on principles of equality and solidarity.